04 Oct 2012: Analysis

The Next Pandemic: Why
It Will Come from Wildlife

Experts believe the next deadly human pandemic will almost certainly be a virus that spills over from wildlife to humans. The reasons why have a lot to do with the frenetic pace with which we are destroying wild places and disrupting ecosystems.

by david quammen

Emerging diseases are in the news again. Scary viruses are making themselves noticed and felt. There’s been a lot of that during the past several months — West Nile fever kills 17 people in the Dallas area, three tourists succumb to hantavirus after visiting Yosemite National Park, an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo claims 33 lives. A separate Ebola outbreak, across the border in Uganda, registers a death toll of 17. A peculiar new coronavirus, related to SARS, proves fatal for a Saudi man and puts a Qatari into critical condition, while disease scientists all over the world wonder: Is this one — or is that one — going to turn into the Next Big One?

By the Next Big One, I mean a murderous pandemic that sweeps around the planet, killing millions of people, as the so-called “Spanish” influenza did in 1918-19, as AIDS has been doing in slower motion, and as SARS might have done in 2003 if it hadn’t been stopped by fast science, rigorous
Avian bird flu test
Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images
An official from the Scottish Agricultural College holds a dead swan to be tested for avian flu.
measures of public health, and luck. Experts I’ve interviewed over the past six years generally agree that such a Next Big One is not only possible but probable. They agree that it will almost certainly be a zoonotic disease — one that emerges from wildlife — and that the causal agent will most likely be a virus. They agree that sheer human abundance, density, and interconnectedness make us highly vulnerable. Our population now stands above seven billion, after all, a vast multitude of potential victims, many of us living at close quarters in big cities, traveling quickly and often from place to place, sharing infections with one another; and there are dangerous new viruses lately emerging against which we haven’t been immunized. Another major pandemic seems as logically inevitable as the prospect that a very dry, very thick forest will eventually burn.

That raises serious issues in the realm of health policy, preparedness, and medical response. It also suggests a few urgent questions on the scientific side — we might even say, the conservation side — of the discussion. Those questions, in simplest form, are: Where? How? and Why? Addressing them is crucial to understanding the dynamics of emerging diseases, and understanding is crucial to preparedness and response.

First question: From where will the Next Big One emerge? Answer, as I’ve noted: Most likely from wildlife. It will be a zoonosis — an animal infection that spills over into humans.

Everything comes from somewhere. New human diseases don’t arrive from Mars. Notwithstanding the vivid anxieties of The Andromeda Strain (1969) and other such fictions, lethal microbes don’t arrive on contaminated satellites returning from deep space. (Or anyway, knock wood, they haven’t so far.) They emerge from nonhuman animals, earthly ones, and spill over into human populations, catching hold, replicating, sometimes adapting and prospering, then passing onward from human to human.

According to one study, 58 percent of all pathogen species infecting humans are zoonotic. Another study found that 72 percent of all recently emerged zoonotic pathogens have come from wildlife. That list includes
According to one study, 72 percent of all recently emerged zoonotic pathogens have come from wildlife.
everything from Ebola and Marburg and the HIVs and the influenzas to West Nile virus, monkeypox, and the SARS bug.

In Malaysia, a virus called Nipah spilled over from fruit bats in 1998. Its route into humans was indirect but efficient: The bats fed in fruit trees overshadowing factory-scale pigsties; the bat droppings carried virus, which infected many pigs; the virus replicated abundantly in the pigs, and from them infected piggery workers and employees at abattoirs. That outbreak killed 109 people and ended with the culling of 1.1 million pigs.

Second question: How do such pathogens get into humans? The particulars are various but the general answer is: contact. Contact equals opportunity, and the successful pathogens are those that seize opportunities to proliferate and to spread, not just from one host to another but from one kind of host to another.

Wild aquatic birds defecate in a village duck pond, passing a new strain of influenza to domestic ducks; the ducks pass it to a Chinese boy charged with their care, after which the boy passes it to his brother and sister. A man in Cameroon butchers a chimpanzee and, elbow deep in its blood, acquires a simian virus that becomes HIV-1. A miner in Uganda enters a shaft filled with bats carrying Marburg virus and, somehow, by ingesting or breathing bat wastes, gets infected. Contact between people and wildlife, sometime direct, sometimes with livestock as intermediaries, presents opportunities for their infections to become ours.

Third question: Why do such spillovers seem to be happening now more than ever? There’s been a steady drumbeat of new zoonotic viruses
We are interacting with wild animals and disrupting the ecosystems they inhabit to an unprecedented degree.
emerging into the human population within recent decades: Machupo (1961), Marburg (1967), Lassa (1969), Ebola (1976), HIV-1 (inferred in 1981, first isolated in 1983), HIV-2 (1986), Sin Nombre (the first-recognized American hantavirus, 1993), Hendra (1994), the strain of influenza called “avian flu” (1997), Nipah (1998), West Nile (1999), SARS (2003), and others. These are not independent events. They are parts of a pattern. They reflect things that we’re doing, not just things that are happening to us.

What we’re doing is interacting with wild animals and disrupting the ecosystems that they inhabit — all to an unprecedented degree. Of course, humans have always killed wildlife and disrupted ecosystems, clearing and fragmenting forests, converting habitat into cropland and settlement, adding livestock to the landscape, driving native species toward extinction, introducing exotics. But now that there are seven billion of us on the planet, with greater tools, greater hungers, greater mobility, we’re pressing into the wild places like never before, and one of the things that we’re finding there is... new infections. And once we’ve acquired a new infection, the chance of spreading it globally is also greater than ever.

We cut our way through the Congo. We cut our way through the Amazon. We cut our way through Borneo and Madagascar and northeastern Australia. We shake the trees, figuratively and literally, and things fall out. We kill and butcher and eat many of the wild animals found there. We settle in those places, creating villages, work camps, towns, extractive
Evolution seizes opportunity, explores possibilities, and helps convert spillovers to pandemics.
industries, new cities. We bring in our domesticated animals, replacing the wild herbivores with livestock. We multiply our livestock as we’ve multiplied ourselves, operating huge factory-scale operations such as the piggeries in Malaysia, into which Nipah virus fell from the bats feeding in fruit trees planted nearby, after the bats’ native forest habitats had been destroyed. We export and import livestock across great distances and at high speeds. We export and import other live animals, especially primates, for medical research. We export and import animal skins, exotic pets, contraband bushmeat, and plants, some of which carry secret microbial passengers.

We travel, moving between cities and continents even more quickly than our transported livestock. We eat in restaurants where the cook may have butchered a porcupine before working on our scallops. We visit monkey temples in Asia, live markets in India, picturesque villages in South America, dusty archeological sites in New Mexico, dairy towns in the Netherlands, bat caves in East Africa, racetracks in Australia — breathing the air, feeding the animals, touching things, shaking hands with the friendly locals — and then we jump on our planes and fly home. We get bit by mosquitoes and ticks. We alter the global climate with our carbon emissions, which may in turn alter the latitudinal ranges within which those mosquitoes and ticks live. We provide an irresistible opportunity for enterprising microbes by the ubiquity and abundance of our human bodies.

MORE FROM YALE e360

Climate’s Strong Fingerprint
In Global Cholera Outbreaks

Climate’s Strong Fingerprint in Global Cholera Outbreaks
For decades, deadly outbreaks of cholera were attributed to the spread of disease through poor sanitation. But recent research demonstrates how closely cholera is tied to environmental and hydrological factors and to weather patterns — all of which may lead to more frequent cholera outbreaks as the world warms.
READ MORE
Everything I’ve just mentioned is encompassed within this rubric: the ecology and evolutionary biology of zoonotic diseases. Ecological circumstance provides opportunity for spillover. Evolution seizes opportunity, explores possibilities, and helps convert spillovers to pandemics. But the majesty of the sheer biological phenomena involved is no consolation for the human miseries, the deaths, and the current level of risk.

There are things that can be done — research, vigilance, anticipation, fast and effective response — to stave off or at least mitigate the Next Big One. My point here is different. My point is about human ecology, not human medicine. It behooves us to remember that we too are animals, interconnected with the rest of earthly biota by shared diseases, among other ways. We should recall that salubriuous biblical warning from the Book of Proverbs: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” The planet is our home, but not ours only, and we’d be wise to tread a little more lightly within this wonderful, germy world.

POSTED ON 04 Oct 2012 IN Biodiversity Climate Forests Pollution & Health Science & Technology Africa Africa Asia Central & South America 

COMMENTS


Interesting how the death rate has decreased over time from the Spanish influenza to present cases of viruses. A pandemic outbreak is going to have to progress at a rapid rate in order to become a pandemic. With all of the early detection systems we have in place now from communication www, tweet, to countries working more together on outbreaks then in the past I wonder if a virus has a chance any more.

Posted by James Erasmus on 04 Oct 2012


All of the preconditions are in place for a pandemic. We are educating viruses and bacteria in how to change so that they can adapt to the drugs we have to defeat them. Their generation rates are much, much faster than our technology generation rates. We have already educated gonorrhea, tuberculosis and other disease organisms, so that our drugs are less effective. inequality of income and outcomes is the driver. When we realize that poverty is increasing, that it is poor people who are crowding around cities where food, sanitation, and health care are lacking, and that it is precisely those countries where environmental destruction is greatest and that poor people are in close proximity with the bush, we can see further evidence that we have oversucceeded in our ability to spread our numbers.

The means to lower the chances of disease are the same means to improve our happiness: We must reduce our rapaciousness and adopt a peaceful coexistence with each other and spaceship Earth. These are not platitudes. They are shape of society if H. sapiens is to survive the population bottleneck approaching.

Posted by SEBI p2 on 06 Oct 2012


Let's add man-made pathogens to the list of where the next pandemic may come from.

I use the word pandemic in the old sense, not the new sense where it can mean whatever a government official or media talking head wants it to mean.

Plenty of germ weapons and "research projects" that produce things that are hard to distinguish from germ weapons... are going on. Do our vaccines protect against these pathogens we KNOW exist?

And now the work of Kawaoka and Fourchier has gone out and can be used by persons who do not have our best interests at heart.

Human-made pathogens. Where do THEY fit into the equation? It seems you could easily introduce these pathogens through agriculture and then blame it on ag or contamination from "nature".

Good cover story. People with a long term agenda may not be interested in taking credit for the release of bio-weapons aimed at reducing the population.

Posted by Karl LeMay on 07 Oct 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
david quammenABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Quammen is the award-winning author of a dozen books, including the newly released Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. A three-time winner of the National Magazine Award and a recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Quammen has published hundreds of articles in magazines such as Outside, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and Harper’s. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about a mysterious cancer epidemic wiping out Australia’s Tasmanian devils.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


How Tiny Fish Could Reveal
Effects of Chemical Exposure

Researchers at a lab at Oregon State University are using zebrafish to assess the impacts of multiple chemical exposures. Their findings could help lead to a better understanding of how chemicals in the environment and in consumer products affect human health.
READ MORE

Bringing Back the Night:
A Fight Against Light Pollution

As evidence mounts that excessive use of light is harming wildlife and adversely affecting human health, new initiatives in France and elsewhere are seeking to turn down the lights that flood an ever-growing part of the planet.
READ MORE

Coal Pollution and the Fight
For Environmental Justice

As its director of "climate justice," Jacqueline Patterson is leading the NAACP’s campaign to shut down coal-burning power plants in minority communities. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she talks about the skepticism she faces from her own constituents.
READ MORE

Long Outlawed in the West,
Lead Paint Sold in Poor Nations

A new study finds that household lead paint — banned for years in the U.S. and Europe because of its health effects on children — is commonly sold in the African nation of Cameroon. Is lead paint the latest case of Western companies selling unsafe products in developing countries?
READ MORE

How No-Flush Toilets Can
Help Make a Healthier World

Inadequate sewage systems and the lack of toilets in much of the developing world have created a major public health and environmental crisis. Now various innovators are promoting new kinds of toilets and technologies that use little or no water and recycle the waste.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Analysis


UN Panel Looks to Renewables
As the Key to Stabilizing Climate

by fred pearce
In its latest report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes a strong case for a sharp increase in low-carbon energy production, especially solar and wind, and provides hope that this transformation can occur in time to hold off the worst impacts of global warming.
READ MORE

Will Increased Food Production
Devour Tropical Forest Lands?

by william laurance
As global population soars, efforts to boost food production will inevitably be focused on the world’s tropical regions. Can this agricultural transformation be achieved without destroying the remaining tropical forests of Africa, South America, and Asia?
READ MORE

New Satellite Boosts Research
On Global Rainfall and Climate

by nicola jones
Although it may seem simple, measuring rainfall worldwide has proven to be a difficult job for scientists. But a recently launched satellite is set to change that, providing data that could help in understanding whether global rainfall really is increasing as the planet warms.
READ MORE

UN Climate Report Is Cautious
On Making Specific Predictions

by fred pearce
The draft of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the world faces serious risks from warming and that the poor are especially vulnerable. But it avoids the kinds of specific forecasts that have sparked controversy in the past.
READ MORE

Rebuilding the Natural World:
A Shift in Ecological Restoration

by richard conniff
From forests in Queens to wetlands in China, planners and scientists are promoting a new approach that incorporates experiments into landscape restoration projects to determine what works to the long-term benefit of nature and what does not.
READ MORE

In the Pastures of Colombia,
Cows, Crops and Timber Coexist

by lisa palmer
As an ambitious program in Colombia demonstrates, combining grazing and agriculture with tree cultivation can coax more food from each acre, boost farmers’ incomes, restore degraded landscapes, and make farmland more resilient to climate change.
READ MORE

Soil as Carbon Storehouse:
New Weapon in Climate Fight?

by judith d. schwartz
The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But new research shows how effective land restoration could play a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change.
READ MORE

Is Weird Winter Weather
Related to Climate Change?

by fred pearce
Scientists are trying to understand if the unusual weather in the Northern Hemisphere this winter — from record heat in Alaska to unprecedented flooding in Britain — is linked to climate change. One thing seems clear: Shifts in the jet stream play a key role and could become even more disruptive as the world warms.
READ MORE

Amid Elephant Slaughter,
Ivory Trade in U.S. Continues

by adam welz
In the last year, the U.S. government and nonprofits have put a spotlight on the illegal poaching of Africa’s elephants and Asia’s insatiable demand for ivory. But the media coverage has ignored a dirty secret: The U.S. has its own large ivory trade that has not been adequately regulated.
READ MORE

Monitoring Corporate Behavior:
Greening or Merely Greenwash?

by fred pearce
Companies with bad environmental records are increasingly turning to a little-known nonprofit called TFT to make sure they meet commitments to improve their practices. It remains to be seen if this is just a PR move or a turning point for corporate conduct.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Peter
Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

 

OF INTEREST



Yale